One bad experience and I was ready to turn my back on the Oregon coast. But that was before James Beard taught me to love it.
Peaks rise above the small township reaching heights of 3,000 feet in Nehalem Bay, Ore.(John Elk / Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image)
Ecola State Park, on the Oregon coast just north of Cannon Beach, was a favorite picnic spot for James Beard.(Scott Dimond / Getty Images/First Light)
Ecola State Park is a scenic spot to spread out a blanket and enjoy lunch.(Ann Cecil / Getty Images/Lonely Planet Image)
More than 20 years ago, I made my first visit to the Oregon coast as a quick side trip from a writers conference I was attending in Portland.
I remember standing on a rocky bluff, shivering as I overlooked a rough-and-tumble Pacific Ocean. The weather was disagreeable — wet and in the low 50s — cold, by my terms, for August. Aching for a sweater, I left, unmoved.
It wasn’t until two decades later that I gave it another chance. I had embarked on co-producing a documentary film about the life of James Beard, the cookbook writer, food columnist and teacher hailed as the dean of American cookery.
Beard’s books had taught me much about cooking, and as a food writer, I admired his example of spreading the gospel of American cuisine and the art of eating well.
On that second visit in September, and several subsequent ones, Beard also taught me the wild and wonderful charms of the area.
The coast figures prominently in Beard’s enduring 1964 memoir, “Delights and Prejudices,” as much a character as his beloved mother, Elizabeth, and childhood friends. In it Beard rhapsodizes about his favorite escape, where he spent three or four months of every year during his youth, and where he would vacation as an adult.
Beard was a native of Portland, and though most often associated with the New York City townhouse in which he lived for decades and where his eponymous culinary foundation now resides, he credited his time at the beach in Gearhart, with shaping his palate.
“Those busy days on the Oregon Coast left their mark on me,” he wrote in his memoir. “And no place on Earth, with the exception of Paris, has done as much to influence my professional life.”
It was through its gastronomic delights that I too finally fell for the region.
I used “Delights and Prejudices” as a culinary map to Beard’s corner of the coast, the northwestern patch of the state that encompasses Clatsop and Tillamook counties, to guide my appetite for several return visits.
Food of the gods
“My special joy at first was crabbing,” Beard wrote, referring to Dungeness crab as the “Pacific’s greatest blessing.”
He insisted that it should be eaten freshly cooked — never frozen — and when washed down with beer, praised it as “a meal that the gods intended for the pure in palate.”
I felt rightly blessed on my first time crabbing, in Nehalem Bay, where the Pacific meets the Nehalem River.
Kelly’s Brighton Marina (29200 Highway 101 N., Rockaway Beach;  368-5745, kellysbrightonmarina.com) is the go-to spot for crab enthusiasts — first-timers and old hands, whether they be families on a Sunday outing or a bachelorette party that doesn’t mind wading in the funk of bait, crustacean juice and seawater for a day of fun.
Crabbing happens two ways at Kelly’s: by motorboat, complete with crabbing gear and a generous meal afterward ($95), or off the dock for $12 per ring (a circular trap) and $15 per pot.
The boat option is more entertaining, especially if Kelly Laviolette himself joins the ride. He’s an ex-cop with a penchant for wearing goofy hats and a second-generation crabber with many a fish tale to tell as you haul up heavy nets.
It turns out that size matters, so we had to toss back crabs that were smaller than 6 inches. Sex matters too, so females were returned to the water to preserve the population.
After a couple of hours of trawling the bay, we returned to the dock to learn that Kelly also happens to be a skilled shellfish cook.
We huddled around a fire to dry off as Kelly boiled up and served our (respectable) catch. We chased the pure, sweet, buttery meat with ice-cold Oregon IPA. It was indeed, as Beard promised, a “special joy.”
The joys of clamming
Beard called razor clams a “sportsman’s catch,” meaning hunters must find clam holes and then burrow into the sand to unearth them. His mother was one of the few women who would “bother to go clamming,” waking at 5 a.m. during low tide to dig up five to six dozen.
He described often having a breakfast of “fried clams, fresh from the sands.” Clams for breakfast? Exotic to an East Coaster, for sure, but they are an evocative way to start the day when breaded, sautéed in butter and served with eggs and hash browns at the Wayfarer Restaurant, overlooking Haystack Rock on Cannon Beach.
Elizabeth Beard was also known for cooking outdoors, something that “was not approved of by some of her friends,” her son remembered.
It affected him, inspiring several of his works, including “Cook It Outdoors,” “The Complete Book of Outdoor Cookery” and “Treasury of Outdoor Cooking,” in which he speaks of helping his mother gather driftwood from the beach to cook breakfast, meat, fish and “at times we had an evening bonfire on the beach with nothing to eat except frankfurters roasted on sticks and quantities of popcorn.”
The beach bonfire tradition continues at the Stephanie Inn in Cannon Beach, where guests can experience a luxe version complete with a “fire butler,” who comes to build the pyre and brings the makings for popcorn and s’mores, for $69.
Though Beard claimed that “at the beach, we turned to the wild rather than the farmer,” he would have loved to see the current boom a few towns up the coast at the Astoria Sunday Market, which bustles with more than 200 vendors until the first week of October.
This is the spot to load up on strawberries, marionberries, huckleberries and blueberries straight from the farm. Shoppers can also buy produce and enjoy smoked salmon chowder, celebrating the town’s abundant catch, along with local wares such as Chef Daddy sea salt blends from Chris Holen, of the Baked Alaska restaurant right on the water.
From 1972 to1982, Beard would come to the coast from New York City to teach cooking classes for adults at Seaside High School in Seaside, Ore., just 2 miles south of the Beard home in Gearhart.
Here he cultivated a close-knit group whose members christened themselves Beard’s “disciples.” In class, they cooked, ate the results and reveled into the evening.
Chef John Newman, of Newman’s at 988 in Cannon Beach, until recently taught culinary arts to high school students at Seaside.
One day, we visited his class and stood in the same room where Beard once educated his students.
When class was dismissed, Newman motioned us to his desk. “I found this in the top drawer on my first day,” he said, pulling out a framed document. It was the Oregon Liquor Commission Control license issued to Beard, which allowed him to serve wine at the school, a charming vestige of his presence.
Husband-and-wife cooking team Bob Neroni and Lenore Emerycarry on Beard’s tradition by championing Oregon bounty in their classes at EVOO (188 S. Hemlock St., Cannon Beach;  436-8555, evoo.biz), both hands-on and demonstration-style, from $149.
On a recent visit, we learned to make ravioli stuffed with local chanterelles; to poach a halibut, freshly pulled from the waters of Astoria; and to fill a tart with huckleberries.
Picnic in the park
Picnicking was another special joy of Beard’s. “Under these circumstances, food tastes better,” he wrote. He would often pack charcuterie, cheese, smoked fish, bread and beer and head to Ecola State Park, digesting the majestic coastal vista along with his fare.
The park remains unspoiled, with miles of hiking trails, secluded beaches and enchanting overlooks. Picnickers in the Beardian tradition can load up at Provisions 124 (124 N. Hemlock St., Cannon Beach;  436-1100), a gourmet market featuring artisan cheese, preserves, salami, local wine and a variety of snackables, before grabbing a growler of beer at the nearby Public Coast Brewing Co.
The name Public Coast salutes the Oregon Beach Bill, which 50 years ago declared all beaches in the state open to the public.
Beard’s coastal home still stands in the quiet community of Gearhart, which is a bit sleepier than its neighbors. We visited the Beard home, which was being renovated by the current owners.
The contractor allowed us a peek; we imagined the hulking Beard and his equally formidable mother cooking together and taking up much of the space in the tiny kitchen.
Here, for Beard, “life was at its most tranquil.” No surprise, then, that he chose Gearhart as his final resting spot: His were ashes scattered by friends on a treasured stretch of beach when he died in 1985.
Understanding Beard’s place of peace made it one of the warmest beaches on Earth to me.
If you go
THE BEST WAY TO PORTLAND, ORE.
From LAX, Delta, Alaska, American and Southwest offer nonstop service to Portland; Southwest offers direct service (stop, no change of planes); and United, Southwest, Delta, Alaska and Virgin America offer connecting service (change of planes). Restricted round-trip fares from $246.
WHERE TO STAY
Stephanie Inn, 2740 S. Pacific, Cannon Beach; (855) 977-2444. Luxury beachfront hotel overlooking Cannon Beach’s iconic Haystack Rock. All rooms feature whirlpool baths and gas fireplaces. The Dining Room is one of the coast’s premiere restaurants. Doubles from $429.
Cannery Pier Hotel & Spa, 10 Basin St., Astoria; (503) 325- 4996. A former fish cannery with 46 rooms that include balconies, river views and fireplaces. On-site spa, complimentary bikes and chauffeur are a few of the other amenities. Doubles from $219 from a night
McMenamins Hotel Gearhart, 1157 N. Marion Ave, Gearhart; (503) 717-8159. This 18-room hotel edges the oldest golf course west of the Mississippi. Within it is a portrait of Beard enjoying a glass of wine on the links and annual dinner in his honor. This year’s dinner will be Aug. 11, with passed hors d’oeuvres and five courses for $100. Rooms from $115 a night.
WHERE TO EAT AND DRINK
The Wayfarer, 1190 Pacific Drive, Cannon Beach; (503) 436-1108. Beachfront restaurant specializing in breakfast and seafood. Breakfast entrees $8.25-$27.95; dinner, $30-$84.
Newman’s at 988, 988 Hemlock St., Cannon Beach; (503) 436-1151. Fine French/Italian cuisine using coastal Oregon ingredients. Entrees $26-$40.
Baked Alaska, No. 1 12th St., Astoria, (503) 325-7414. Full-service restaurant, pizzeria and bar serving “wild, natural and sustainable,” fare. Entrees $14-$28; pizza $10-$18.
Public Coast Brewing Co., 264 3rd St., Cannon Beach; (503) 436-0285. Craft brewery serving fish tacos, burgers and other casual fare. Entrees $10.95-$17.95. Live music on Saturdays.
TO LEARN MORE
Travel Oregon, (800) 547-7842
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